We’d been climbing for hours in the mountains north of Lecco, when clanging goats’ bells and bleating, almost human with yearning, led us to an ancient, two-story stone house built into the mountainside, a baita. Out front, on a sunny terrace, backpacking hikers and local families squeezed onto benches at plank tables. A prefab construction housed, among other things, bathrooms. To the right, in a wooden pen, shaggy, long-haired goats scrambled up and down the steep incline, tussling like children, gnawing on sparse tufts of grass and rubbing against scraggly trees that jutted from the slope and shot upward. Red flowered curtains adorned the upstairs windows. Downstairs were three green doors.
A young woman waved to us. She wore a blonde ponytail and jeans and tee shirt underneath an apron. She was serving a table of burly, flannel shirted men, about 50 of them, joking with her in local dialect and slugging down bubbly red wine from a glass bowl, which they passed. She ducked into the first green door and yelled, “Out of here or I’ll call your mother.” A boy scampered out, smacking his lips. He cuddled up to one of the men who, guffawing, whacked him on the behind and shooed him off to watch the goats with the other children.
The girl laughed. She asked people to slide over and make room for us. She snapped down a bright blue tablecloth. After serving our drinks, she cheerfully served the entire table of drunken men, lured rowdy children away from the goats with games to play and hung up a load of laundry at the far end of the terrace, all the while, whisking away empty plates, taking orders, asking about guests’ families and work and offering them homemade cheese, homemade salame, homemade liquore, and cakes she’d baked herself that morning. When she told us she’d have to ask if there was any rabbit left, I wondered who did the cooking.
Across the valley, cool watery sunlight washed a terrain forested with budding beech and hazelnut trees and strewn with white rocks. Shining torrents of melted snow dropped from the cliffs to crash on rocky outcroppings and plunge into a foaming river that roared and pounded 100 meters from our table. We basked in the sun, savoring stewed rabbit and polenta.
By now, the men were shouting, collapsing in hee-haw laughter and occasionally blasting into song. None of this ruffled the girl’s buoyant good humor or slowed her down. Lithe and focused, she darted in and out of the green doors, enjoying the banter.
I asked to look inside the baita. The first green door led to a small snug den, warm with human bodies. Light seeped like mist through one glass pane, barely illuminating local mountaineers crowded around two picnic tables. A paunchy grandfather dozed in a rocker near an unlit fireplace. Eight cakes, fragrant with butter, cooled on a narrow table near the door.
The girl called us to the second green door. Here was a cold grotto cut into the rocky mountain wall. Behind a locked screen were shelved small soft rolls of caprino and large rounds of aged cheese. The smell of fresh milk, the swept floor and gleaming steel table evoked memories of my grandpa’s milk house. A white cloth covered a vat of milk and rennet. “It’ll be ready for cheese in a few hours,” she said. She told us this evening she’d take the goats to high altitude to graze. She’d brought them from the valley that morning. Before or after baking the cakes, I wondered.
She led us outside, squinting, and then through the third green door into another dark cave-like room, the kitchen. There was no sink — for that matter, there was no running water; they must have hauled water from the new building. There was no electricity, only two great wood-burning stoves and a stove-sized basket of wood. Huge polenta pots hung from the ceiling.
I said, “You do the cooking and baking on wood burning stoves? And chop wood?” The girl smiled proudly and nodded. She asked where we came from and if we liked her beautiful home. She wondered if we were professori, saying the word as though it meant deity and as though she hadn’t finished school.
We said goodbye and turned to leave. Only then did I discern, in a dark corner, seated motionless upon a stool and silently staring, an old woman dressed in black. It was the mother, shadow of the past, omen of the future. She didn’t acknowledge us; that wasn’t her role. I imagined she cooked the polenta and washed up. She looked very tired.